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How to win over your Chinese colleagues

By Alok Joshi (Global Times)

09:35, June 28, 2013

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

Modern office life is full of hazards. We often come across stories about gender issues in career development, sexual harassment, office jealousy and cross-cultural communication barriers. But what about in offices where Chinese and foreigners work alongside each other? Is office discrimination towards foreigners an overblown myth or grim reality?

Over the last few years, the number of foreigners working in China has soared. There must be something about China that attracts expats, especially to first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Some Chinese companies hire foreigners at a price, soon learning of their incompatibility in the workplace.

Whenever I meet other foreigners, they complain to me about problems of doing business in China as being rooted in "discrimination." But I believe every country has a legitimate right to protect its own interests and industries.

I hired some foreigners at my former company in Beijing. They were disillusioned and left within a year because they could not adapt to the work culture. They perceived the workplace as too hierarchical and closed, wherein they were never able to see the big picture.

Sometimes I am asked how I feel working for a Chinese company as a foreigner and whether there is any discrimination. My answer is a resounding no. I have worked for three different large companies during the past five years and can't recall a single instance where I felt discriminated against.

The closest brush I have had with discrimination has been during lunch at the canteen. Most of the time, I eat alone. At the beginning I felt isolated, but then one day my colleague comforted me with a frank confession.

He said he and others avoided sitting with me because it required them to speak English. Quite simply, it was too much pressure.

"We can do only one thing at a time: either talk to you in English or enjoy our lunch," my colleague told me.

Apart from minor issues, it has been a real privilege and honor for me as the only foreigner in a company with 2,500 Chinese employees. Not only do I receive the same moon cakes or zongzi (sticky-rice dumplings) that come around during various traditional Chinese festivals, I also enjoy a kind of rock star-like status.

There are different reasons why a foreigner like me is not discriminated against at a Chinese company.

Firstly, Chinese colleagues do not see any competition in me because I pose no threat to their position or status at the company. They know I am here only for a limited time and am not likely to rob them of a promotion or obstruct their career advancement. I'm therefore treated with the warm hospitality usually reserved for guests.

Secondly, I am friendly. This is something that undeniably shapes how Chinese view foreigners and determines how one will be treated.

I'm not sure if other foreigners have been as fortunate as me, but to my mind Chinese employers and employees alike value our experience, knowledge, skills and, above all, friendliness.

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